The first group of NASA astronauts since the announcement of the Artemis program graduated from the Johnson Space Center in Houston during a ceremony Jan. 10. Among the graduates were two men and a woman who attribute their success, in part, to attending the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS).
Matthew Dominick, a Navy lieutenant commander, graduated from USNTPS, based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, and served on USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) as department head for Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 115. Dominick was one of 11 NASA and two Canadian Space Agency astronauts in the recent graduation class.
Raja Chari, an Air Force colonel, served as the commander of the 461st Flight Test Squadron and the director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base in California following his USNTPS graduation.
Jasmin Moghbeli, a Marine Corps major, is a distinguished graduate of USTPS. Moghbeli tested H-1 helicopters and served as the quality assurance and avionics officer for Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 1.
Speed and man’s interaction with machines sparked Dominick’s early interest in flying and, ultimately, his decision to enlist in the Navy.
“[As a child] I was always building things in my backyard or in my garage and probably breaking my dad’s tools and figuring out how to work things,” Dominick said. “I am fascinated by human-machine integration and how we interact with machines. And I was always interested in going faster and higher … but I quickly realized there are limits to what you can do without an education, and the Navy presented me with that opportunity.”
Like many of his colleagues, Chari first knew he wanted to fly as a career in late middle school, but his inspiration was perhaps a little different from theirs.
“I was really into ‘Star Wars’ at the time, but at some point, I realized that I couldn’t fly an X-Wing in real life and fighter jets seemed like a logical Plan B,” Chari said with a laugh. “And being an Air Force guy, I’m probably going to catch a lot of flak for saying this, but I can’t lie that ‘Top Gun’ didn’t play a role in it, too.”
Moghbeli, who cut her aviation teeth piloting helicopters for the Marine Corps, said her first flight aboard a Cessna with a family friend cemented her desire to fly. Around the same time, she decided to pursue a career in the Marine Corps.
“Both my grandparents served in the military in Iran. My Mom’s father served in the Iranian Navy, so I think from an early age, I started having an interest in the military,” Moghbeli said. “I was initially looking at the Navy and then, in my junior year of college at a career fair, I talked to an officer at a Marine Corps booth, and ended up going to officer candidate school that same summer and enjoyed getting commissioned after that.
“I have always liked the idea of service to country and traveling and adventure, and I’ve always played sports,” Moghbeli said. “Rivalry really appealed to me.”
Test Pilot School Offers Path to Space
The path to exploring beyond the Earth’s atmosphere was different for each of the newly minted astronauts, but these three share a special bond having completed the unique training experience at USNTPS.
Dominick earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of San Diego and a master’s degree in systems engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His thirst to continue learning and a desire to contribute to the fleet in a more effective way led to him to apply to USNTPS.
“I was in my fleet squadron and I realized that what was right for me—based on what I love to do—was to go to test pilot school because that would be a place where I could explore further how [to] make things better for the fleet,” Dominick said, remarking that USNTPS pilots actively participate in testing aircraft and troubleshooting issues that arise in order to repair and improve systems.
“Test pilot school is about a way of thinking about problems and a way to communicate issues. Most of test pilot school is really just understanding complex things and distilling them down into a way that people can understand, so that problems can get resolved. Most people think about test pilots like, edge of the envelope, keeping an airplane flying, conducting these really extreme high-risk test points. That’s kind of the glamour shot. But 95 percent of test piloting is reading and writing—and writing very well.”
After graduating from the Air Force Academy and earning his master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chari was considering whether to pursue a career in engineering or aviation when a friend gave him some valuable advice.
“He said, ‘Did you know there’s this place called the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School where you can actually do engineering work and fly, too?’” Chari recalled. “To me, that sounded like a perfect blend of my interests.”
Chari applied to USNTPS while assigned to an F-15 Strike Eagle squadron in England, and was thrilled when, the following year, the school offered him a place.
“It was a pretty amazing experience, and I made friends that I still keep in touch with today,” Chari said. “It’s definitely not a walk in the park, but it’s also fun when you remember to take a step back and look at it. You’ll be grumbling that you have to write this huge paper, but then you remind yourself that you’re doing it because tomorrow, you’ll get to fly a plane you’ve never flown before.”
USNTPS also opened up another career path for Chari that, until then, had seemed only a distant possibility—being an astronaut.
“Honestly, I didn’t really think it was realistic until I got selected for test pilot school,” he said. “That’s when it dawned on me that this astronaut idea was now actually within the realm of possibility.”
Moghbeli earned her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering with information technology at MIT and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School before being accepted to USNTPS, which she admits was more challenging than she anticipated.
“I think I underestimated a bit,” Moghbeli said. “I remember when I first got there, we received this email about the ‘You’ll Be Sorry Party.’ I was like, ‘what do you mean ‘you’ll be sorry?’ You know, like, it can’t be that bad. The long-standing joke is you spend half your day in class, half your day flying and half your day writing reports. It was very, very time consuming trying to do everything to the level that I wanted.”
Teamwork and Troubleshooting:
What is it that makes USNTPS one of the key pipelines for people who seek to become astronauts?
Marine Lt. Col. Rory Feely, Commanding Officer, USNTPS, said that in addition to the school’s comprehensive curriculum, top-notch instructors and highly competitive application process, it is the school’s emphasis on teamwork that benefits future astronauts.
“When you look at the qualities and characteristics of those who are successful in applying to NASA and becoming astronauts, I think it is the teamwork side of their personality that sets them apart,” Feely said. “And we foster that trait here because close collaboration between aviators and engineers is a critical part of flight test, not just here at the school but throughout the Navy’s other test squadrons.”
“There’s nothing we do in life these days that we do by oneself,” Feely said. “Our disciplines and our endeavors are just far too complicated for one person to be able to cover all the bases. USNTPS graduates learn from experience that their success is dependent on their ability to work with and to trust others as a team.”
Feely speaks from experience; he worked with Moghbeli in early 2012 when both were assigned to the operations department of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 367 at Camp Pendleton, California—and, in fact, Feely wrote a letter of recommendation in support of her application to USNTPS.
“She never, ever quit, which is a fantastic attribute to have,” Feely said. “I used to tell people that the only reason she’s working for me is because I outranked her, otherwise I’d be working for her.”
Founded in 1945, the USNTPS trains developmental test pilots, flight officers, engineers and industry and foreign partners in the full-spectrum test and evaluation of aircraft and aircraft systems. The school is in the forefront of developing modern test techniques, and is a leader in the standardization of flight test. It is the only source of rotary-wing test pilots in the United States and serves as the Army’s test pilot school. Graduates leave the program prepared to meet the wide range of requirements necessary to conduct research, developmental and operational test and evaluation activities in support of U.S. military services, government agencies and many foreign nations.
For military pilots, flight officers and engineers who want to become astronauts, USNTPS isn’t the only gateway, but it is one of the most successful, Feely said. But those people have to really want it, he said.
“USNTPS is very selective about who is allowed to participate in the program, both on the staff side and the student side, and those who make it through the doors are already very accomplished in many areas of their careers not only academically, but also in terms of their flight performance,” Feely said. “A person may have hopes of becoming an astronaut when they become a pilot in the military, but first they have to build their reputation by aiming higher and seeking out greater challenges.”
Dominick said his USNTPS experience prepared him for uncertainties while in the air and ways to quickly troubleshoot issues as they arise.
“[USNTPS] puts you in situations in which you are uncomfortable. When you first get there, the first aircraft you fly is one you are unfamiliar with,” said Dominick, who had experience with fixed-wing aircraft, but found himself in the cockpit of a helicopter as his first flying experience at USNTPS. “They want to make you uncomfortable and to assess what is going on. I think that was really valuable experience.
“Also, if you want to have influence, if you want to be there in the early stages of development and make the fleet have better tools to do the job, then go to USNTPS.”
Moghbeli reiterated that having an immediate impact to the fleet was a fulfilling reward for those who attend USNTPS.
“Something I loved about it was that it allowed me to combine that operational experience I had from the fleet with [my] engineering background. And the cool thing about it is you graduate from test pilot school and you’re immediately having impacts to aircraft systems, weapons systems, avionics, things that are going to be going out to the fleet,” she said. “I remember I was working on an electrical warfare pod as the project manager after graduating. I would give feedback, the engineers would incorporate it, and I would test again. That iterative process, of seeing the active change in that product and giving the fleet something that I felt was a better product, was a very satisfying experience for me.”
Chari agreed with his colleagues about the value of finely honed problem-solving skills in day-to-day military service. “If you’ve ever been frustrated with a system because it doesn’t work the way it should, the way to deal with that is to go to test pilot school and become part of the solution,” he said. “You will develop the ability to influence future systems and make them better for the operators who come after you.”
Solving Space Challenges
All three astronauts said they draw on their experiences and knowledge gleaned from USNTPS on a daily basis, mostly their troubleshooting skills and thought processes to improve existing technology.
Dominick, who is currently working with Moghbeli on the Orion lunar lander for NASA’s planned return to the Moon, said his skills from USNTPS are directly impacting that program. Specifically, Dominick said he is addressing challenges of being able to dock the Orion spacecraft with the lander, and then have the lander touch down on the Moon and then be able to redock once leaving the Moon’s surface.
“We’re going to visually fly one spacecraft into another … it’s very analogous to some of the tasks we did at test pilot school,” Dominick said. “When I was at [Air Test and Evaluation Squadron] VX-23, I was involved with the Precision Landing Mode program, initially called MAGIC CARPET, working on landing [an aircraft] on the ship in a more precise way. And what’s really funny is that I am now using the same exact fundamental control laws and human system integration that we were using for landing on a ship … to learn how to land on the moon.”
“I’m looking at using my background as a helicopter test pilot to look at how we train for this mission, what trainers can we use and what’s out there. And what’s cooler than that?” Moghbeli said. “To be able to work on the next lunar lander as a new astronaut is pretty cool.”
“It’s a natural progression from test pilot school to NASA,” said Chari, who is now the test director for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, helping ready the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon for crewed spaceflights. “A lot of what we’re doing with the new vehicles is very much test related. All of the vehicles being developed need people who have test backgrounds and who understand the acquisition process. And we have to be very good at managing many tasks at once. So it’s a very translatable skillset.”
The new graduates may be assigned to missions destined for the International Space Station, the Moon, and ultimately, Mars. According to NASA, the organization has plans to send the first woman and next man to the surface of the Moon by 2024. Additional lunar missions are planned once a year thereafter and human exploration of Mars is targeted for the mid-2030s.